Democrats bash corporate greed, but more stocks for all Americans may be a better wealth redistribution method

Ganesh Setty, special to CNBC.com
Key Points
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand have supported legislation to increase access to stocks for workers at private companies, through employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs).
  • Over the past decade, the top 10% of households earned a disproportionate increase in wealth, as most of the gains came through the stock market.
  • In 2016, the richest 10% of the country owned 85% to 90% of the financial assets.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, speaks during a news conference on the Stop Wall Street Looting Act on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, July 18, 2019.
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Democratic Party leaders have made Wall Street "greed" and corporate financial engineering, such as stock buybacks, a priority of efforts to reduce wealth inequality. Policy recommendations to tax stock market gains and target private equity are popular, but one idea that many high-profile Democratic hopefuls have supported in the past has not received much attention on the campaign trail: Granting stock ownership to more Americans.

The latest monthly jobs report continued to show a solid job creation pace and low unemployment, but during the past decade of economic recovery, the top 10% of households have seen a disproportionate increase in wealth, as most of the gains went to the stock market.

In 2016, the richest 10 percent of the country owned 85% to 90% of financial assets, with the top 1% owning more than half, according to a paper by New York University economics Professor Edward Wolff. Meanwhile, a recent national survey by the Federal Reserve found that roughly 40% of Americans could not afford a $400 emergency expense — 27% would be forced to sell something or resorting to a loan; 12% would not even have those options available to fund the expense.

While workers at large publicly traded companies have access to employer stock plans — often at discounts to current market value — as well as compensation in the form of stock options, that is not the case for the majority of Americans employed by private companies.

He talks about the stock market. Well, that's fine if you own stocks. So many families in America do not.
California Sen. Kamala Harris

California Sen. Kamala Harris highlighted household's lack of access to capital during the first round of primary debates last month in Miami despite President' Trump's frequent celebrations of the stock market's record highs.

"He talks about the stock market. Well, that's fine if you own stocks. So many families in America do not," Harris said.

The Harris economic platform is focused on many ways to increase the share of wealth held by working Americans, including what the campaign described as a a reversal of "President Trump's trillion-dollar tax cut for corporations and the top 1%" and use of that money to give a tax credit of up to $6,000 to working families each year. She also supports a $15 minimum wage, greater union power, and rent relief.

Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who is not currently running for president, recently introduced legislation to curb stock buybacks. Brown's bill would require companies to offer employees $1 for every $1 million spent on stock repurchases.

"Wall Street's obsession with accumulating wealth for the people who already have it is by their explicit design – and it comes at the direct expense of American workers," the Ohio lawmaker said at a recent National Press Club appearance in Washington.

What these ideas lack is a direct method to generate gains the way the wealthy, like corporate shareholders, always have done so: through stock ownership.

Creating employee-owners

Employee stock option plans, or ESOPs, are one of the only policies that can directly deal with the economic reality that gains in the economy have largely gone to Americans with access to stocks. ESOPs help solve that discrepancy by not only distributing profits of private companies more equally amongst workers, but also giving them more control of the company in turn.

"Creating more owners, by issuing equity to employees, is the fastest way to reduce income inequality, " said Henry Ward, CEO of Carta, an equity management software platform. "It's never been easier to issue employee equity. ESOPs are one more tool that can lift workers from payroll into the equity stack — where there's potential for life-changing returns. The American working class deserves any vehicle that increases access to owning capital."

While they vary widely in structure, ESOPs share the wealth that businesses accrue over time through issuing company shares to employees, often after the company takes out a loan. The cost of setting up an ESOP can be substantial, often $40,000 for the simplest plans to hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to the NCEO. This is not to mention the cost of repurchasing shares of departing employees — most companies buying between 2% and 5% of shares per year.

ESOPs are embraced by companies as large as Publix Super Markets (valued at $35 billion); the average size of as ESOP company is a roughly $500 million company. Half of the top 10 largest ESOP companies are 100% employee-owned.

The shares, allocated through a trust, allow workers to sit among the ranks of major shareholders, providing a greater degree of employee ownership within a company. Since ESOPs are used primarily by private companies, the stock is less subject to the whims of the public stock market, allowing for a lower degree of volatility in an ESOP company's valuation. Contributions and dividends paid by ESOPs are widely tax deductible, and owners who sell their shares can defer capital gains taxes. Though capital gains tax treatment is another focus of policy efforts to reduce wealth inequality.

"ESOPs are about getting people to understand that you grow wealthy slowly, not quickly," said Christopher Mackin, president of Ownership Associates, which provides strategic advice to private companies wishing to adopt ESOPs. "It is not an overnight thing. Wealthy people understand the process ... employee ownership is about opening that up to more people."

Private companies with revenue between $30 million and $500 million are in the sweet spot for adopting ESOPs, especially those who are looking for an alternative to private equity, Mackin said. He said that if employee ownership is going to make a dent in wealth inequality, it needs to be embraced by more the middle-market firms.

At companies with an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), the average worker has accumulated $134,000 in wealth from his or her stake, according to 2018 research by professors Joseph Blasi and Douglas Kruse of the Institute for the Study of Employee Ownership and Profit Sharing at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.

Risks

There are risks and drawbacks to ESOPs.

Even though public stocks can trade with greater volatility — ESOPs are appraised once a year versus a public stock market every trading day— employee-owners are not insulated from declines in private company stock value.

Once a worker leaves a company, the company must repurchase the shares that had been allocated to them over the course of a set period of time, depending on each firm's set distribution policy. If a company with an ESOP is struggling financially and has to lay off workers or workers leave, the plan must cash out those workers' shares in the ESOP, which can further exacerbate the company's financial woes as well as reduce the value of all other workers' ESOP accounts.

Though most companies with ESOPs also offer 401(k) plans, which are diversified across many stocks and bonds (depending on age and risk tolerance of an individual) access to a broader retirement savings vehicle is not necessarily guaranteed.

Progressive critics of ESOPs have long said they are a better tax write-off for corporations, in the event of a sale of the business, than employee incentive. Once an ESOP owns 30%, everyone who sells to ESOP can take advantage of capital gains deferral. That does allow some ownership groups or families still holding enough of stock to sell to the ESOP and get the capital gains deferral benefit.

But there are reasons that employees would want owners to sell to an ESOP regardless — for example, as an alternative to selling to a private equity firm. Based on federal law, the trustee of an ESOP can still accept an offer to sell at a later date. Employees have right to instruct the trustee on how to vote on assets of a business, but don't always have the authority to instruct the trustee on sale of stock, though in the least the ESOP would be benefiting from the sale price.

We need oversight. We need the IRS and court system and Labor Department. There is the possibility for abuse, but it is a great deal for employees.
Loren Rodgers
National Center for Employee Ownership

Some labor unions, but by no means all, also worry about the influence employee stock ownership can have on their ability to gather worker support for measures that management may opposes. One example of where things went wrong with an ESOP that involved both unions and financial struggles: United Airlines.

Loren Rodgers, the executive director for the National Center for Employee Ownership (NCEO), said there are cases where ESOPs don't work, but looking at population-wide data on employee ownership shows that the bad cases are the exceptions. "We need oversight. We need the IRS and court system and Labor Department," Rodgers said. "There is the possibility for abuse, but it is a great deal for employees."

One of the biggest issues for employee stock ownership plans is their complexity, on matters including taxes. A recent E-Trade Financial survey found that only a minority of workers understand how to manage employee stock.

Democratic Party presidential hopeful and New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand sponsored legislation in the Senate to increase access to stock ownership for employees of private companies, through employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs). Provisions of the Main Street Employee Ownership Act of 2018, sponsored by 2020 Democratic candidates, were included in a $717 billion defense authorization bill passed by President Trump. The provisions let the Small Business Administration guarantee loans to companies seeking to create their own ESOP.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker had co-sponsored the ESOP plan alongside Gillibrand, but it never made its way to a vote as a piece of stand-alone legislation. Gillibrand, as well as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard — are presidential candidates who voted against the broader defense legislation into which the ESOP policy idea was inserted. Booker voted for it.

There is currently a bipartisan bill on the floor of the senate sponsored by Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts and Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin that eases funding for ESOPs through S-Corporations, but the presidential contenders are placing their focus elsewhere on the campaign trail.

Warren, Sanders and company ownership

Warren recently unveiled a bill targeting the private equity and banking industry, the "Stop Wall Street Looting Act" which Gillibrand and Sanders co-sponsored. It includes protections for workers whose retirement savings may be in investment vehicles that are vulnerable to corporate transactions, like private equity buyouts, but no specific incentives for greater employee stock ownership.

Warren has taken another approach to increasing employee ownership in the past: she introduced legislation last year for a type of employee ownership known as co-determination, requiring companies with revenue over $1 billion to allow workers to elect at least 40% of their board of directors.

Sanders introduced legislation in 2017, based on the Vermont Employee Ownership Center, to expand state centers that provide training and technical support for establishing cooperatives and ESOPs, which Gillibrand also sponsored the legislation, and a separate bill to provide funding for ESOP purchases of businesses, but they never made it through Congress. Sherrod Brown and Warren supported the measures as well.

Senator Bernie Sanders and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren shake hands before the start of the first night of the second 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Detroit, Michigan, July 30, 2019.
Lucas Jackson | Reuters

"Simply put, when employees have an ownership stake in their company, they will not ship their own jobs to China to increase their profits, they will be more productive, and they will earn a better living," Sanders said in a release announcing his 2017 bill.

Sanders also recently made an appearance at the Walmart annual meeting pushing for more worker representation on the giant retailer's board.

"American corporations are focused entirely on maximizing shareholder returns — no matter the effect on workers, the environment, or communities," said Saloni Sharma, Deputy National Press Secretary for the Warren campaign, in an email to CNBC. "Elizabeth has a plan to end the grip of shareholder value maximization and to require workers to elect no less than 40% of Board members at giant corporations. That will give workers a powerful voice in corporate decisions, including decisions that shovel money to shareholders instead of making long-term investments in the company."

The Gillibrand, Booker, and Sanders campaigns did not return requests for comment regarding any current presidential platform proposals to increase stock ownership for working Americans.

One of the reasons it is difficult to make ESOPs a focus of presidential campaigns: Many Republicans have long supported ESOPs too.

14 million Americans are in ESOPs

Approximately 14.4 million Americans participate in an ESOP, according to the NCEO, ESOPs first gained steam in the 1970s after the passage of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 and accompanying tax incentives by Democratic Louisiana Senator Russell Long.

"What we have seen is bipartisan, bicameral support for ESOPs for a long time. It is an issue a lot of people can agree on right, left, and center," said Patrick Mirza, spokesman for the ESOP Association, an advocacy group.

Yet the number of ESOPs registered with the Department of Labor declined from 2012 to 2016, from a high of approximately 6,900 to 6,100 over those four years. That is most due to acquisitions, according to Mirza and the NCEO.

Employer engagement also is key.

"The creation of an ESOP generally requires a strong owner-manager who really wants employees to be able to continue to build the company," said professor William Lazonick, president of The Academic-Industry Research Network, a critic of public companies that view their primary responsibility as maximizing profits of shareholders. He said when a company goes public, the relationship between managers and workers often deteriorates as the company transitions from a focus on growing the business to appeasing shareholders.

Employee ownership boosts company productivity by 4%, shareholder returns by 2% and profits by 14 percent, according to a Rutgers University study that Sanders cited at the time of his 2017 bill's introduction. The NCEO found in a 2017 survey that among workers age 28 to 34 — millennials maximally far from retirement — those who are employee-owners have 92% higher median household wealth, 33% higher income from wages, and 53% longer median job tenure than workers who are not employee-owners.

Mackin said ESOPs can help close the wealth gap because they make workers wealthier as the company grows, rather than the hassle of redistributing wealth after the fact.

Could ESOPs resurface during election season in a greater way?

NCEO's Rodgers said it may be a better general election issue than Democratic Party primary issue. "It might be better for the Democratic candidates when they are trying to make a difference between themselves and President Trump, who exemplifies the wealth gap. ... Democratic candidates can throw out advocacy for employee ownership versus Trump as a business person, and as a politician."

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